Lots of us have theories on where the Holy Spirit is leading the church in North American in the 21st century. Lots of angsty people hope the church will reach Millenials. Lots of doomsayers believe the Spirit is letting the church die.
I'm putting my money on one basic idea: The Spirit is leading churches to re-root in their communities, in their local neighborhoods.
Many churches do this already, natively. But surprisingly a lot less do than could. It's not uncommon for people living in a neighborhood to have little or no contact with the community of people who worship together in a church building right on their block.
Anecdotally, there are at least five churches I can walk to in my own neighborhood where I don't no a single person who attends there. I don't know where their members live. I've never met anyone who attends these churches.
Also anecdotally, when I tell people I am the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, even if they live right next door to the church, more than once I have had them ask, "Where is that church?" Or: "Is that the church there on Rolling Hills somewhere?"
There are perhaps many reasons why individual churches are in the neighborhood while not being in the neighborhood. If they are a church like ours with a denominational affiliation that tends to attract members from across the region rather than in the specific neighborhood, the church may not have as part of its identity the notion that it is a part of the neighborhood.
It is, on the other hand, surprising to me that congregations don't take the injunction from Jesus, "Love your neighbor," as a practical and geographical suggestion. In other words, as a church, if we are to love our neighbor, we might start right next door, with our actual neighbors... with the school next to us, the other churches nearby, the rehab center down the street, the offices and businesses around the corner, the POA down the block.
This is why I am so attracted to Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen's new book, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community. They have captured in this book the heart of a movement that I believe will be the signal movement of local congregations in the 21st century. Churches will thrive in community by re-rooting in their local communities.
On one level, the book brings nothing radically new to the conversation. Community organizing has been around for a while. Neighborhoods have been rediscovering themselves not just from a Christian perspective, but in the post-modern era also.
What is helpful about the way these three pastors frame the conversation, however, is by understanding the parish as an integral part of designing fresh expressions of neighborhood life.
First, they emphasize that many of us have gotten into the habit, unfortunately, of living above place. In our global, networked world, we know more people on Facebook than in our neighborhood, and think of ourselves as a part of interest groups more than our block. So the book is first of all an invitation to live in rather than above place.
Second, these pastors help us define the new parish in ways that has resonances with the old parish model, but with enlivening new modalities. As just one example, since many churches often exist even within one neighborhood, the new parish model invites the possibility of collaboration and mutual mission together in the neighborhood across denominational lines.
Additionally, in the new parish, the neighborhood contributes to the form of the church as much as the church helps define the parish. Neighborhoods, and the way they mutually care for each other, can teach churches something about love and faithfulness.
Overall, the authors of The New Parish adopt a mentality of the new commons, and strive to find the church in all of life. The book doesn't simply redefine the relationship between church and neighborhoods. It is up to some ecclesiological work, redefining the nature of the church itself. The church is now defined by the way it faithfully presences itself in the midst of the new commons.
The New Parish is published by IVP Press, which is both a strength and a weakness. It's strong on offering devotional resources for readers of the book to think through the spirituality of the transition to a new parish way of thinking. It is soft on some of the ethnographic and social science research I think could be really fruitful in convincing readers why a strong re-rooting of congregations matters for redevelopment in communities and neighborhoods. Perhaps Dwight Friesen, the author who is also on seminary faculty, will write some kind of companion piece that picks up more of this research. I would love it if he did.
My favorite chapter is the chapter on re-rooting itself, chapter 7. The authors recognize that if we are going to let re-rooting inhabit our imaginations, we are going to need to imagine it on three levels. First, we are called to re-root on a personal level. We are called to get to know our neighbors, wherever we actually individually live. Then, congregations are being called to re-root in their local neighborhoods. Then, third, we are called to re-root with other people of faith in our neighborhoods. This will look like ecumenical partnerships, or groups from different denominational affiliations who are committed to causes in our neighborhoods.
I have seen some of these practices already at work in our own community. We have a group of churches who have identified a neighborhood in which they wish to serve a weekly community meal, because there are hungry people. People of faith are partnering together to build community gardens, set up Free Libraries, tutor at the schools, and more.
Often, these kinds of neighborhood re-rooting are even transcending religious boundaries. We have served our meal with the youth group from the synagogue. We celebrate congregational ministry in the summer with congregations of people from at least three historic religious traditions.
The authors conclude with a chapter on "linking," a topic dear to the heart of Dwight Friesen, whose previous book was Thy Kingdom Connected (ēmersion: Emergent Village resources for communities of faith): What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks
. The authors recognize that although churches are called to re-root in their neighborhoods, in the new parish model this will include learning best practices from other parishes and communities around the world. Never before have there been as many opportunities for people to share with each other about their parish practices through links and networks at the global level.
The authors have travelled around the country seeing how other new parish ministries are developing. They encourage reader to reach out and learn, nationally and globally, in what might be a kind of new denominationalism. It's a worthy final proposal, and will be a good check on the new parish movement so it is ecumenical rather than parochial.
I conclude with a series of questions from the book. If you are serious about re-rooting in your neighborhood as a Christian, and discovering how your local congregation can re-root in its own parish, consider working through these with a friend or group of brothers and sisters in Christ.
1. Where do you live? Describe the contours of your neighborhood. What narratives or values seem present in the place where you live?
2. How might you describe your current relationship to your place?
3. What might be an intentional and natural next step for you to live even more fully present within and in-with your place?
4. Walk with a friend or two: Invite a neighbor to join you on your walk through your neighborhood. As you walk together share what you see and hope for.
5. Are you a character in your neighborhood? Wonder together about ways of rooting within your parish so people might come to know of and depend on you.
6. Have a conversation with your community of faith exploring intentional ways of being present as a group in the life of your neighborhood.